Duck Soup in Japan

Duck Soup in Japan

Has no one informed Dr. Akagi that he’s living in a complex and serious drama about the morale of Japanese citizens toward the end of World War II?


Has no one informed Dr. Akagi that he’s living in a complex and serious drama about the morale of Japanese citizens toward the end of World War II? Apparently not, to judge by the way he behaves like one of the Marx Brothers. Here he is, hurrying through his seaside village—-

But I’ve committed a redundancy. Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) knows no form of motion other than the headlong. Despite his middle-aged heft, despite the white in his mustache, he goes everywhere at a trot, huffing and sweating and pumping his arms as if God had called, “On the double!” So, to start again: Here he is in his seaside village—-

But in what sense is Dr. Akagi “in” the village? His jog carries him over bridges by fishermen’s shacks, across fields planted with vegetables, up the hill near an old factory (which now serves as a work camp for prisoners of war). En route, he pauses to examine people in their homes, in his office, in the brothel that’s been turned into an officers’ club. But do any of these spaces contain him? How much less is he held in by their aggregate? Whereas another film might patiently assemble its settings into the mental image of “village,” Dr. Akagi lets them bounce past one another, like rainbow-colored balls in the drum of some cosmic lottery game. So, again: Dr. Akagi—-

But that’s not what people call him. They prefer to use a half-affectionate, half-mocking nickname, bestowed in honor of his single diagnosis. No matter which patient he sees, no matter for which ailment, he invariably declares, “Hepatitis!” So he’s now known as Kanzo Sensei: Dr. Liver.

I’ll try once more:

Past vegetables, prostitutes and prisoners of war trots an out-of-breath man, crying “Hepatitis!” By acting this way, he claims, he does his bit to serve the Emperor, and help “liberate Asia from the white race.” So long as Dr. Liver pursues his private, all-out war against hepatitis (which he wants to make known as epidemic), he need not think too much about his son, who is stationed somewhere in Manchuria; or about Germany, which now presents a woeful example of a nation in defeat; or about the less meritorious habits of Japan’s soldiers, which may be observed even in the village.

Singlemindedness may insulate Dr. Akagi from these troubles, but it cannot forever keep him from falling apart. Like the Marx Brothers toward the end of Duck Soup–another important war movie–the doctor is already in pieces, unable to stay in the same costume from one shot to the next. First you see him puffing along in a straw boater, bow tie and ice-cream suit; then, after the cut, he’s running in the same direction but in a different outfit.

Is this merely a mistake in continuity? Not likely. Dr. Akagi is the work of Shohei Imamura, who in his 70s has tapped into a new vein of his prodigious talent. Last year saw the belated release in the United States of his fantasia on redemption, night fishing and UFOs, The Eel. I struggled in these pages to convey something of its brilliance. Now I have to chase behind Dr. Akagi, hoping again to catch a few of the bright fragments Imamura scatters in his wake.

Speaking of fragments and mistakes: When Dr. Akagi receives bad news in a letter, he rips up the paper and flings its pieces into the air. Of course, they tumble back down–but then they keep tumbling, as if his grief, so endless and impossible, had turned into a snowfall. In Dr. Akagi, apparent ruptures in the natural order can be decorative (like that shower of paper); or stupefying (like the finale, which cannot be anticipated and should not be described); or mordant, grotesque and generative all at once, like the momentary resurrection of a fisherman.

While you try to think of another film that treats resurrection as just a passing incident, I will explain that the fisherman died (though not completely) while administering a disciplinary beating to his daughter Sonoko, a tall, lithe, bronzed young woman who has been working as a prostitute. With his dying breath–the real one–the fisherman commends Sonoko to Akagi’s care, thereby bringing into the doctor’s house a character who is in every way his equal. I suppose the film might just as well have been titled Sonoko. We meet her before we see Akagi, and her dreams and memories inform the film as much as his.

It seems she loves the father who beat her; she believes he could have killed a whale, singlehanded. “One day I’ll kill a whale for you,” she promises Akagi, when (to his alarm) she falls in love with him. Love is not simple, especially in the summer of 1945. Akagi will not allow himself to accept this bundle of needs and vitality that wants to dump herself in his lap; watch his eyes, and you can see him add her to the list of subjects to be avoided through diligent medical research. Sonoko nevertheless clings to him all the more firmly–perhaps because everyone else wants her to abandon the straight life she took up so recently.

Tomiko (Keiko Matsuzaka), the matronly brothel owner, presses Sonoko to fill in–just for one night!–to entertain the prison-camp commander. It’s hard to say no to Tomiko, or to the woman who begs Sonoko to initiate her son. The lad has been called up for the army, and mom thinks he’ll be less likely to attract bullets if he’s no longer a virgin. Even Sonoko’s younger sisters want her to resume the trade. “We’re starving,” they plead. “Go back to whoring.”

Kumiko Aso, who plays Sonoko, greets such pleas as if they’re not the whale she was expecting. Rangy and thin, she projects a whiplike energy held in check for great things, though in the meantime she’s got enough exasperation to make her twitch. It’s a wonderful, half-mimed comic performance, which also manages to be touching, without for a moment resorting to waiflike appeal. (Movie waifs are generally in need of light dusting; Sonoko seems filthy, even after she’s cleaned up.) I think she’s fully a match for Akira Emoto’s Akagi, who reminded me of Groucho in his moments of high, or even middling, dudgeon. He, too, moves low to the ground and is perpetually busy in an obsessed, irascible way. The difference: Emoto clings to the dignity that for Groucho was only a toy.

Perhaps it was another of those miraculous mistakes for him to have retained this sense of gravity and purpose while living through Dr. Akagi. The dramatic-irony meter is on its highest setting, all the way through the film. We know how soon the characters’ doings will be made futile; in case we forget, we have a soundtrack full of Americanized music to remind us. Beyond that, we can see how patched-together is the little family that forms around Dr. Akagi. This stalwart of the Emperor keeps company not only with Sonoko but with a drunken Buddhist priest (Juro Kara), a cynical dope-fiend surgeon (Masanori Sera) and even a Dutch soldier (Jacques Gamblin) who has escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp. Which illusions, exactly, can he expect to hold when he casts his eyes upon the people in his own home?

Not the illusions that obsess the commander of the prison camp. That man fantasizes about discovering why Japan is not doing so well in the war. His answer, of course, is of the one-size-fits-all variety and can be easily remedied. There must be a spy in the work camp; find the spy, kill him, and Japan will win. For Akagi and Sonoko this kind of thinking does not simplify life; it complicates matters, in unhappy ways. They prefer to pursue other kinds of dreams: ill-matched, improbable, at once grand and funny.

Shohei Imamura honors them greatly for chasing after their illusions, and he honors the audience by offering us this tragic, home-front Night at the Opera. On the program this evening: the Marx Brothers in Götterdämmerung–and the surprisingly young and lovely Margaret Dumont isn’t wearing any underpants.

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